The visiting Philharmonia: a great orchestra comes into its own -- again

It is thrilling to be able to report that the Philharmonia is, once again, one of the great wonders of the musical world. The Philharmonia has been one of England's most prestigious orchestras from the day it was founded in 1945.

walter Legge, the late great record producer, created the ensemble as a custom-made orchestra for the conductors of EMI (in this country, Angel) he had at his disposal -- maestri that included its first two music directors, Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer.

There was also an astounding list of guests who were invited to lead it -- including Toscanini, Furtwangler, Stokowski, barbirolli, Giulini, Bohm, Leinsdorf.

It was every bit as fine an orchestra as it was meant to be, and one has only to go back to recordings of the late 1940s and early '50s to hear that the most exceptional musicians were at the head of each section of the ensemble.

When Walter Legge left EMI under less than cordial circumstances in 1964, he disbanded the orchestra, which regrouped under self-management as the NEw Philharmonia, with Klemperer still at the head. After Klemperer's passing in 1973, the orchestra, which had lost many of its original personnel, was still finding its identity. A year ago, Riccardo Muti became music director, two years after the word "New" was dropped from the name.

The orchestra's first date on its current US tour was Boston, where it tackeled Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Schubert's "The Great," under Muti's baton. The strings have a sheen as well as a unlimited variety of expressive colors. The basses in particular give just the right underpinning to the sound. The brass rights firm and true, the winds are melting and eloquent. In the first chairs of each section sit virtuoso musicians bubbling over with sensitivity and consummate style.

But Muti is being manufactured into a super star. The press publicity mills of EMI are tirelessly working to that end, while the vinyl is stamped out at incredible rates -- cycles of symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Schumann, MEndels sohn.

And now that he is music director of the Philadelphia ORchestra as well, EMI-Angel is embarking on a Beethoven cycle that will be in direct competition with Angel's new Jochum set.

Muti has been gaining a reputation as the man who restores the composer's intent, sweeps away the cobwebs of tradition, and breathes new life into the scores. In operas, he eliminates traditional interpolations, and in general he turns up the tempos to breakneck speeds. But in Mozart, as evidenced in his performance of the Jupiter, he waxes "reverential," i.e. slow, methodical, and utterly devoid of intensity, even interest.

The Schubert was altogether another sort of venture. For here, Muti tended to set out at an almost hysterical tempo, letting the orchestra rip through the music, though at least giving some of the sections enough breathing room to allow the players to make memorable music. But even in Muti's generally self-serving approach, anyone with ears could revel in that orchestra -- in the lush sounds he asks them to produce, in the excellent balances he achieves, and in the individual sparks of musicianship that any great orchestra will supply any conductor.

This magnificent orchestra is on a nationwide tour right now, a welcome visitor to these shores. For further Philharmonia is one of a kind, Muti doesm get remarkable precision out of them, and they clearly love making music in a grand, legendary way befitting the name of this legendary orchestra.

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